'Escape'-Ism Captures NY (The
Herald-News/Jul 10/1981/US) By Tom Sullivan
We've seen Manhattan vacated
by a nuclear disaster, lonely and deserted in Time, Flesh and The Devil,
we've seen its residents eating one another during an international famine in
Soylent Green, and beset by misunderstood giant ape in two versions of
King Kong. We even discovered the remnants of the Statue of Liberty in the
closing sequences of The Planet of the Apes.
In between, writers and directors for stage, movies and television have clothed
the "Naked City" with every conceivable kind of story and character exposition
portraying this sceptered isle, this seat of crime kings, this rock, set like a
rhinestone in a sea of murky waters, not as a fortress against infection and the
onslaught of invaders, but as the greatest possible canvas for human drama.
Now comes John Carpenter, maker of such films as Dark Star, Halloween
and The Fog, co-authoring with Nick Castle and directing the most bizarre
Manhattan story of all, Escape From New York.
Set in 1997, it has the island walled as a maximum security prison for 3.3
million of society's craziest, most violent criminals, watched over by the
National Police, a grim group who hardly dare enter the enclave unless backed up
by vast fire power.
Carpenter wrote the basic script in 1974 after his first visit to New York. Its
vastly differing neighborhoods fascinated him, and so did the edge of violence
that exists in certain sections.
Not until he had launched his career with the other, more obviously commercial
projects was he able to generate any interest in Escape, which seemed
likely to be a costly film. Halloween, in fact, rates today as the most
financially successful independent film ever and The Fog pretty
successful, even if it was nowhere near as good.
Carpenter's student project, The Resurrection of Bronco Billy, had won
him an Academy Award in 1970 as the best live action short, so he called upon
Castle, his classmate in the cinema course at University of Southern California,
who was co-author and director of cinematography, to flesh out the Escape
As is his style, he shaped the key roles for the actors who would eventually
play them: Kurt Russell as anti-hero Snake Plisskin, Ernest Borgnine as the cab
driver, Donald Pleasence as the president and Mrs. Carpenter, Adrienne Barbeau,
as Maggie, the tough-as-nails mistress of a conniving convict.
For his archvillain, the Duke of New York, Carpenter chose Isaac Hayes, who
manages to take himself consummately evil from first frame to last.
The story concerns the crash of Air Force One enroute to a summit meeting, with
the President falling on to the island and into the hands of the Duke, who says
he will release him if he and his cohorts go free. It is Plisskin's job to get
him out and on a strict time limit.
Since Carpenter is in Alaska shooting a new version of The Thing, it was
his wife who came to New York to drum up interest in the film and she, too, is
rather busy these days, having just returned from shooting The Swamp on
Southern locations, and before that, The Next in Greece.
She can also be seen on area screens as the Cosmo girl type driving the black
Lamborghini and winning the race in The Cannonball Rally, a film that
probably has nothing else to recommend it.
"It is John's most costly film to date," she explained over breakfast in New
York. "About $7 million, and
the longest shoot he has ever done - about three months. What is amazing is that
everyone who has seen it marvels that we were able to do as much as we did in
Manhattan, but the truth is there was only one day of shooting in the New York
area, with the main location in St. Louis and a little bit in Los Angeles.
"New World Pictures did the special effects, and the scenes of the city with its
Hudson River walls are super well done. Even the climatic chase on the East
River bridge look totally New York, but were actually done on a dead bridge in
"The public library where I live with Harry Dean Stanton was the library at USC,
complete with an oil pump working in the background."
Even for Carpenter, the tension in this film is at a very high level, and half of
that is generated by the pulsing electronic score which again, is Carpenter's
creation, in association with Alan Howarth.
"Most people don't realize," said his wife, "but John actually has a rock band,
The Coupe DeVilles. In fact Nick Castle is a member of it, so he knows his
Working with Carpenter is nothing new for Adrienne, either. She first became
known as the wise-cracking Carol on Maude, moved on to appear in a TV
movie, Someone Is Watching Me, which Carpenter directed, fell in love
with him and they were married in 1979. She made her feature film debut in
The Fog and since Carpenter likes to work with old friends, she presumably
has plenty of roles ahead of her in epics.
"He has been of enormous value to me as an actress," she explained, "because I
got into the business without the training and little theater apprenticeship
most other rising performers enjoy.